TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1 WHEN THE CUCKOO CALLED AT SUNDOWN
CHAPTER 2 CUSTOMS AND CELEBRATIONS
CHAPTER 3 THE OCHS CLAN
CHAPTER 4 LIFE IN BROD
CHAPTER 5 GREEDY GRANDPA
CHAPTER 6 GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES WITH BLUE SATIN SASHES
CHAPTER 7 THE ARRIVAL
CHAPTER 8 SCHOOL AND OUR FIRST CHRISTMAS
CHAPTER 9 THE NEW BABY AND THE BEST CHRISTMAS
CHAPTER 10 LENA’S WEDDING
CHAPTER 11 MR. MAAS
CHAPTER 12 THE GRADUATION
CHAPTER 13 ON TO LOVE AND POLITICS
CHAPTER 14 THE GIFT AND THE BETRAYAL
CHAPTER 15 BACK TO THE FAMILY
CHAPTER 16 CRISIS
CHAPTER 17 WHAT MAKES A JOB A JOB?
CHAPTER 18 THE LAGOON
CHAPTER 19 GEORGE
CHAPTER 73 CATCHING UP ON MY EIGHTIETH BIRTHDAY
My autobiography begins with
the earliest memories that I have of my family and the small ethnic German
village in Slavonia now in Croatia where I was born in 1914 and continues with
our exciting journey to Milwaukee when I was seven years old.
The book describes the
obstacles and opportunities that faced me as an immigrant child and young
woman. Meeting my husband, George, our courtship and marriage, and the
raising of our seven children play an important role in my memoirs.
The book continues after
George's death in 1975, telling about the new life that I had to make for
myself, while sharing, with my children and their families, their joys and
My story includes people of
six generations and covers events in their lives through January 1994.
WHEN THE CUCKOO CALLED AT SUNDOWN
The setting of my first home
seems like a good place to start our family history. From there I'll go on to
the present as well as my memory will take me. I will try to name the
locations of each place as well as I can; some will have changed for the
The anecdotes I'll use to
inform, involve, or entertain you will be as accurate as I can make them.
Aside from personal memory, there will be stories from reliable witnesses or
hearsay that have stood the test of time, have remained relevant, and contain
interest or enjoyment.
First of all, I want to
assure everyone that the only embarrassing or shocking tales you will read may
be about people you know, but only such as those who have been dead for a long
time. This was the primary rule about nonfiction writing I learned in my very
first writing class, circa 1940, Ethel Gintoft.
I'll start with what I
recall about Hrastovac, the small village where I was born in 1914.
Hrastovac, Austria-Hungary now in the country of Croatia, is about 26
kilometers west of Daruvar and about a two-hour drive E of Zagreb. The
village had only two rows of houses facing each other across a rutted dirt
road, which ended in a small cluster of buildings where the business of the
village was conducted. There was an inn (Gasthaus) with a tavern where
food was served on the first floor. On the second floor were sleeping rooms
for overnight guests. The village had one grocery store and a one-room
schoolhouse, which also served as the church on Sundays. I seem to remember a
flourmill in the vicinity because Grandfather Ochs was a miller.
Peter (1847-1918) and Maria
Schneider (Abt.1854- ? ) Ochs. Peter was one of the first settlers in
Hrastovac and owned the store and the flour mill. Photo ca. 1911.
Our house was long and
narrow, built of a kind of mud walls that needed whitewashing from time to
time. Some distances behind the house were outbuildings, which included one
shed for cow garden paraphernalia and another larger one for a horse and
wagon. On one side of the house was an outdoor patio where we often played at
the end of the day. From there we could see woods behind the house and enjoy
an unobstructed view of the sunset. From the patio was a single entrance into
the house leading into a hallway, from which we could enter the front room or
the kitchen, the only two rooms in the house.
The front room was damp and
sparsely furnished and contained our good clothes, which were taken out only
on Sunday mornings for church. If there was ever a guest (ein Gast)
admitted into that sterile room, I fail to remember it. One of my earliest
memories, and the only enjoyable one I have of the phantom room, is of Grandma
emerging every Sunday morning carrying Grandpa's church clothes over her arm,
the hand of the other clutching his shoes, and his hat perched saucily on her
head. * Mary and I waited for this antic of Grandma's every Sunday, and it
never grew stale for us. This little scene took place in the kitchen, as did
most everything else. It was the heart of the house.
Happily the kitchen was
almost twice the size of that other room. This is where life was lived, day
in and day out, with the fragrance of strings of dried garlic and red peppers
hanging on the walls and the lingering smells of baking bread and home
At the back end of the
kitchen was a cupboard for dishes and foodstuffs and an iron stove which was
used for cooking. During the winter, the stove was the only source of heat for
the house. In hot weather, perishables were lowered into the well in the yard
to keep them cool.
Two feather beds soft as
clouds flanked the walls on either side of the kitchen. Each bed was covered
with a sheet and piled high with snow-white pillows. There was no bed spread,
and underneath it all was a prickly mattress filled with straw. The whiteness
of the bedding was a housewife's claim to respectability.
I was born in that kitchen,
in one of those beds, fifteen months after my sister, Mary, when my mother was
just two months short of her eighteenth birthday. Grandma and the midwife
were the only attendants, no antiseptic, no anesthesia---just hot water, soap,
and clean, white rags. The man of the house, with his nerves and his nausea,
was usually dispatched to a neighbor's house. This was woman's work!
Papa must have been in the
army then, as I have no memory or his presence while living in Grandma and
Grandpa Kehl's house. I remember Mama being very relaxed and happy, as living
with Grandma was for all of us, especially when Grandpa wasn't around.
Jakob (1863-1946) and
Elizabeth Messner Kehl
Living in Hrastovac those
first few years of my life left me with gifts I could not have acquired in the
city, such as one purely bucolic incident that left a memory I treasure. I
have never shared it with anyone, nor have I ever understood it. It has never
been repeated or forgotten. Why haven't I ever written it down? Perhaps the
time has come…
I was probably four or five
years old and pleasantly warm and tired from play. Mary and I each had a
handful of cherries to eat before we were to come into the house for our
Saturday night baths. Mary went in, and I looked dreamily about at my
surroundings. The brilliant sunset, the clover-scented breeze caressing my
face, the last cherry sweet on my tongue. Suddenly, the two-note call of a
cuckoo sounded from the woods. My heart jumped, my breathing accelerated, and
I felt faint. I think there was some kind of gap in the time at that point
because it was a couple of minutes before I heard Grandma's voice called me,
"Komm ins Haus, Liebschen!"
What happened then and
there? How often had I thought of that moment, trying to understand it, and
failing to do so, putting it out of my mind until another time.
Well! I understand it
now---in 1994! After writing it down countless times, resurrecting the sight
and my feelings to the best of my ability, it suddenly became clear to
me---the sight of the sunset, the touch and smell of the evening breeze on my
face, the last of the cherries sweet on my tongue---four of my senses involved
simultaneously! At that moment I heard the two-note call of the cuckoo from
the woods. 1-2-3-4-5. That's when it happened! The call of the cuckoo made
number five! All five senses came together in one magic moment! I've got it!
By, George, I think I've finally got it! Nirvana!
Dear God, how beautiful is your world, and to think that I
held that special moment within me for almost a lifetime. Now I am able to
share its significance with my loved ones!
P.S. I assure you, the
following chapters won't always end on such a philosophical note. This one
was a long time being born.
One of the things that
really surprised me in the recall of my childhood home (in view of the fact
almost 300 years had passed since the first Ochs and Kehl family left Germany)
is how well their ethnicity had survived. Comparing them to the Croats who
surrounded our village on all sides, they still looked like Germans, even in
my memory of them.
For the uninformed, I'd
better explain how true Germans happened to settle in Croatia in the first
place. In the late seventeen hundreds, thousands of families from southwest
Germany decided to travel to eastern Europe because of their discontent with
the government and living conditions to take advantage of a homesteading deal
there (many by way of the Danube River--that is why they and their descendents
are called Donauschwaben). The land had been ravaged by a protracted
war with Turkey, and settlers were offered land to farm with up to three years
free taxes. The Ochs name and Kehl, my mother's maiden name, appeared on the
original roster. Considering how little they changed, how they clung to their
German customs and language, and how different they remained from the
Croatians in the early 1920's, they were indeed a tenacious lot.
I'll start with weddings in
my description of the customs I remember most. The bride in white in such
hinterlands was of course, unheard of. My mother caused a sensation when she
was married in a blue one-piece dress brought along from Brazil. The typical
bride in Hrastovac wore a brightly colored peasant-type skirt and blouse, and
a wreath of flowers in her hair, fresh ones in season and crepe paper roses in
winter. Every village had a young woman who was taught or self-taught to make
crepe paper roses to help satisfy a certain inherent beauty hunger through the
After the ceremony in the
church, a local wedding custom followed. The new bride, with her husband and
wedding party, walked the length of the town, and all of the town's
inhabitants awaited them to tie a colored silk ribbon around the bride's arm.
At the end of the road, she crossed over to the other side where her other arm
was likewise adorned, which would bring her to the other end. There was
considerable competition for the prettiest ribbons, which were saved for
little girls of the future.
The German wedding dinners
were so popular and ingrained into the culture; they even crossed the
Atlantic, becoming a part of several generations of weddings in Milwaukee.
Chicken soup made from countless fresh chickens and cooked with homemade
noodles cut fine as thread was not easily given up!
The wedding dance likewise
did not change much. During the Bride Dance, every guest got a spin with the
bride---man, woman or child. Each was required to pay for the honor by
depositing a money token into the waiting lap of the bride's mother. This
custom did not die easily either; however the guests felt about it. The
lovely thing about weddings was that nobody counted the cost once they got
into the spirit of it! The babies slept in their mothers' arms; the older
children were found in the wee hours in strange corners but always carried
home in the loving arms of their parents (who had slightly tipsy steps!) to
wake up in their beds in the morning.
Butchering Day, as awful as
it sounds, was another custom that refused to die in rural life. In reading a
collection of Wallace Stegner's short stories, I found that the description of
Butchering Days in the author's life in Saskatchewan was almost identical to
the custom in Hrastovac. The only difference I found was that the Canadians
caught the blood in a bowl for blood pudding, the Germans, for blood sausage.
One sounds as bad as the other to me!
According to Stegner, the
slaughter took place in the early morning. He described the pig as very
nervous, even suspicious. Some people who have had a pet put to sleep can
certainly identify with that. The pig was held down or tied up, whatever it
took to get its cooperation in having its throat slit. I was given a part in
the only butchering I remember before we left for America. I was seven years
old and was at that time the city child from Brot who was believed to be in
need of toughening. I was told that I must hold the pig's tail until it
stopped squealing (was dead). Somehow, I allowed someone to get me to take
hold of the animal's tail. At the first squeal, I let go and ran and hid
behind my grandmother's outdoor oven, to the laughter of the --uh--butchers.
As the day wore on, however, I forced this part of my non-participation to the
back of my mind, unwilling to be left out of the merrymaking. After smelling
the sumptuous bratwurst made from a well-guarded family recipe, I weakened
still more, and found it so delicious that I was perfectly able to put aside
the memory of its grisly origin.
The high point of the day
was reserved for the evening, after the dishes were washed. A sudden, sharp
tapping on the window pane was the cue for the older children to go out into
the frosty air and retrieve a piece of paper that had been prepared by
non-present neighbors. It contained a comic verse about every member of the
butchering party. In retrospect, I remember the hearty laughter for the
verses about the men (they were not for the ears of children!). By this time
there had been considerable wine consumed, and the party reached boisterous
proportions! I know now that most of the adults present had no more than four
years of schooling, some less, some none at all. To think they would conceive
this kind of ending for this particular affair. Somehow I like that!
Every community has, I'm
sure, some kind of Thanksgiving--a Harvest Feast. Goose was the preferred
bird for ours. It was, of course, my fleet-of-foot grandmother who was put in
charge of catching and fattening the creature. I watched her from a
distance. She grasped the unhappy bird by the neck, held it tightly between
her knees, and started to push dry kernels of corn down its throat with her
index finger. "Komm zu mir, mein Kind," she called to me. I tried not
to watch her as she laughed and talked, continuing to fatten our harvest
dinner. The bird's wings flapped wildly, and to this day I can see its beady,
terrified little eyes! I reminded myself over and over, "Grandma is a kind
and gentle person, she is, she is!" I've never stopped being thankful that
our American Thanksgiving turkey comes from the meat market all ready to be
stuffed and put into the oven to roast!
Christmas celebrations in
Hrastovac were quite similar to ours. Santa Claus was replaced by a kind of
Father Christmas, Beltsnickel, who came early on Christmas Eve and was
awaited by children with delicious fear and trembling. Once the children
answered, "Yes" to his gruff question, "Have you been good?” they were asked
to sing a Weinacht's Lied (Christmas song). Then he reached into his
bag and threw handfuls of nuts and unwrapped hard Christmas candy on the
floor, making his departure with a final "Frohliche Weinachten!” for
the children had been good, of course.
The next loved Christian
holiday of children was Easter. No baskets of candy and eggs, only colored
hard-boiled eggs placed by the Easter rabbit in handmade straw nests. Each
child hid his or hers in the hay of the barn. Big, bad brothers were often
known to get up with the sun and help themselves to some of their sisters'
The worst such case took
place in the Ochs family. My father and his older brother Pete ate their five
sisters' eggs and replaced them with…horse apples! The howls of the girls
awakened the parents and were soon replace by those of the boys when the truth
was revealed. Such early-morning noise was enough to awaken a good many
neighbors, and the story became a classic. Needless to say, the boys never
did that again!
Müller Ruppert told us that it was slightly different in Hrastovac; the
children didn’t go outside to get the piece of paper that contained the comic
verse. Instead, after the men, tapped on the window, the father opened the
window. The men had a long stick with the verse attached to it. When the
father took the verse off the stick, the mother would put a donut in its
THE OCHS CLAN
Now I will go on to my
paternal grandparents' generation and try to show you what life was like for
them. My grandfather, Peter Ochs, defected from the ironclad convention of
the village by marrying a girl from a neighboring village…and a Catholic as
well! Neither one ever neither accepted the other's religion nor showed the
slightest interest in it. Such prejudice was accepted without apology or pang
1883-1970. Peter, served his military obligation before WWI began and
sponsored the author's family when they immigrated to
Milwaukee, WI in 1921
and also paid their passage.
Photo ca. 1917
Grandfather Ochs was a
chubby grandfatherly type. He was the village miller and ran after the
grandchildren waving floury hands, making funny white faces. He also owned
the only grocery store in the village. A stop there meant a handmade paper
cone of rock candy, the only candy available in those parts. It was called
Zucher (rhymes with looker), which has a literal translation of the word
There is a charming story
about the first Christmas Eve of their married life. Grandpa found his young
wife (Maria Schneider Ochs) in tears after the baby was asleep. On
questioning her tenderly, she admitted she missed the midnight mass of her
church. "Go get your shawl and I'll get the horse and wagon," he said. The
nearest Catholic Church was in Garesnica, a ride of perhaps an hours and a
half. This became a favorite Christmas story of the village, whose residents
no doubt listened each year for the return of the wagon early Christmas
Peter and Maris's first son
was Peter, my father's older brother and maker of much mischief in his time.
He married at an early age and had two children, a boy and a girl, after which
his wife left his bed, as she wanted no more children. This was common, as it
was the only available form of birth control, and no doubt hard on the
marriage! Peter had no intention of putting up with it. He divorced his wife
and married Katherine Stumpf, a sixteen-year-old beauty who bore him 14
children of which 12 survived. They immigrated to America (Milwaukee) after
the fourth child was born.
The “Big Family” of Peter Ochs
and Katharina, nee Stumpf, who played a very important part in
Elisabeth's life before her marriage to George.
From left to right: Bottom row: Frank, Richard, Eli, Anne, Marjorie;
Standing: Philip, Carl, John, Peter, Peter Sen., Katharina, Elizabeth
(Betty) Kay, Mary.
Photo taken on Katharina's birthday, 22nd of March 1942.
The second child of the
mixed (interfaith) marriage was my father John (called Hans), your
grandfather. At the age of 18, he and two of his friends took off for North
Dakota, where they worked in the woods for two years. My father, unlike his
brother, Peter, was not a talker, and nothing whatever is known about those
two years. I assume they cut down tees. On his return, he either joined the
army or was drafted. My mother, Mary, and I stayed at Grandma Kehl's home
until the war was over. Mary, my brother, and I were all born during the war
|Elizabeth and Mary Ochs (sitting),
Who could be the girl
I will not go into such
details about all of the children of Peter and Mary, but there are some
interesting stories here. My father's oldest sister was Katherine, mother of
my cousin Katherine, who you remember. Katherine, Sr. fell in love with a
second cousin, Jacob Ochs. Even in those days, parents objected to such
marriages, no doubt due to the stories about royalty. The cousin couple paid
no heed, eloped, and Katherine Ochs remained the bride's name.
Their first son was born,
and from birth had some kind of mental deficiency that was never diagnosed in
Hrastovac, nor later in Milwaukee. He never attended school, and after early
childhood and adolescence he was kept at home. The only thing I remember
about him is how he walked the streets of Milwaukee with his head lowered to
his chest, mumbling to himself. Parents warned their children about him.
The only two people in the
relation (or the city) who befriended him were his sister, Lena, and his
uncle, my father. My father gave him haircuts, a skill he had learned in the
army. Cousins Peter and Mary had six more children after Jacob, all mentally
sound. My cousin, Katherine, was the only one born in the U.S. and never knew
her father, as he died when she was two.
My father's third sibling
was Elizabeth. We called her Listant. I might inject the information
that bringing new names into a family was considered faithless…at least a form
of snobbery. Elizabeth married a Hungarian, Szanto---only a Turk was
considered lower! The marriage failed; she divorced him and left for America,
extracting a promise from him to send her only son, Stephen, age 3, to her
when he was older. She promised to send his fare.
All through our childhood,
we listened to Listant's stories about her son, Stephie. Listant liked
a good time, and in her twenties she married a handsome saloonkeeper from
Milwaukee, Philip Drechsler. He was sentenced to jail for ten months for
selling whiskey during the prohibition. Listant took up with Philip's 350-lb.
bartender named Louis and divorced Philip to marry him.
We kids loved Louis. He was
funny and generous with treats from the tavern. He died at 65, and Elizabeth,
nearing 70, sold their saloon business and retired. Her first act, then, was
to send for her Stephie, who was still in Europe. By this time we were all
tired of hearing about him. She had an open house for the relation to welcome
him. Stephie turned out to be an overweight late-middle-aged man, surly to
the point of being arrogant, and not a bit interested in his mother's family.
George and I stopped at their tavern one summer evening, and Stephie was more
arrogant than ever.
Within the first couple of
years after he arrived, Stephie convinced his mother to buy a large tavern in
Slinger, Wisconsin, and put her in the kitchen as the cook. He'd been known
to say he would become a big shot if it killed him, and indeed it did. Before
the first two years were over, he suffered a fatal heart attack. When
notified, all the family was reputed to have said, "Good!" right out loud, and
I'm afraid I was one of them!
In conclusion I would like
to tell you about my father's youngest sister, Christina. Though the
youngest, Christina was married and moved away before I was old enough to know
her. I'd heard a great deal about her; she was greatly loved. I never met
her until she paid a visit to say good-bye to our family before we left for
Christina was beautiful and
gay, and I loved her the minute I met her and knew that I always would. She
had three beautiful children and played like a child with all of us, even
turned somersaults in her long skirts. When she spoke with us, she talked no
differently than she did with the grown-ups. I felt we were the same age, and
I loved it.
There was a high pear tree
in Grandma's yard. The pears were ripe, and we stuffed ourselves sick on
them. Christina gobbled with the rest of us, laughing and letting the juice
run down her chin and wiping it on her sleeve, just like us. It was
wonderful, one of the happiest days of my life, but down deep there lurked the
knowledge I would never see her gain, and of course I didn't.
A picture of Grandma and
Grandpa (Peter and Maria Ochs) is hanging in the cottage in Rhinelander.
Grandpa has a white beard, and Grandma is wearing a babushka. The married
women of Hrastovac always wore the babushka. The way each woman tied
indicated her babushka indicated the village from which she came. The knot
was tucked under her chin with considerable pressure.
LIFE IN BROD
Although Mary and I were
born only 15 months apart, there were almost four years between my brother,
Johnny, and me. The answer was, of course, the war. I have a vague memory of
my mother telling somebody, in a voice tinged with pride, "Johnny was furlough
baby," so he was probably born in Brod, where we were living when the war
ended. Brod was a small city about an hour's train ride from Hrastovac. Mary
and I had many visits back and forth, as she continued to live with Grandma
and Grandpa Kehl in Hrastovac until we left for America. *
Left: Anna Maria Kehl Ochs
(1894-1987), daughter of Jakob and Elizabeth Messner Kehl. Photo
taken in Brazil shortly before Anna Maria’s and Johann Ochs’ marriage
in Hrastovac. Photo ca. 1912 - At
right: Johann “John”
Ochs (1885-1941). Photo ca. 1910
The house we lived in was
near the depot. A troop train stopped there frequently to allow the young
soldiers to get out for some exercise; I remember them throwing a ball and
otherwise horsing around. Whenever this happened, I saw tears in my mother's
eyes, and when I asked her why she was crying, she would shake her head and
walk away. Many years later I asked her about these young soldiers again, and
she told me they were all boys on their way to the front. Brod, I have since
learned, was the city to which Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of the Archduke
Ferdinand, escaped and hid for two years before he was found and executed for
Papa had a job at the
railroad---yes---it must have been after the war. I do remember how nice it
was to have him coming home every evening.
These were happy time. The
incident I remember most clearly was one of those I relived with absolute
clarity for many years and still recall better than most. It was a Saturday
afternoon, and I was waiting for Papa to come home, as he had promised to take
us to the fair after supper. Mama dressed me up early, and I had a new red
bow in my hair. The hours dragged by. I kept running to look at my
reflection in the well to make sure I'd look nice for Papa.
It was starting to turn dark
when I decided I'd better start praying to my Himmel Dadi (heaven
daddy) about it. This phrase was the deity small children were taught to
address in prayer. I know Papa never did get home to take us to the fair, but
neither do I remember any sense of disappointment that my prayer was not
answered. Did I really make the best of such situations, or does a child
block them out, as psychology would have it today? I really don't know.
Whatever the case, I became, as a child, and remain to this day, adept at
taking disappointment in stride.
It was while we were living
in Brod that we must have started plans to immigrate to the United States. I
remember frequent exchanges of mail about it. Grandma Kehl cried at the
mention of the word America. My sister, Mary, possibly coached by Grandma,
always maintained the she was "not coming with" but always made sure to say
where she was going to hide…usually in Grandma's outdoor oven!
* Pictures of Papa and Mama
before they were married are hanging in the cottage in Rhinelander. Papa is
wearing his soldier's uniform from WWI.
What a demeaning title to
use about one's maternal grandfather! Actually, it's comparatively mild!
Grandpa Kehl had more serious flaws than the name would suggest, nasty as it
sounds. The stories that earned this one for him were of a lighter, perhaps
amusing kind that could be told in the presence of children before they were
old enough to be exposed to the darker ones.
There is one other story of
the benign kind you kids may remember. Grandma had clothes drying on the line
one day, leaving them out in the afternoon sun to bleach. Just before
sundown, a heavy shower soaked them, so she left them on the line to finish
drying in the morning. The next day Grandpa discovered that his white Sunday
shirt was gone. "Die verdamten Ziegeuner!" (Those damn Gypsies!),
Grandpa swore. He was sure that it was the gypsies who stole it!
Some time later he stopped
at a fair, a carnival-like picnic with halves of roasting pigs enticing
passersby with their aroma. Grandpa stopped to eat and spotted a gypsy
wearing his Sunday shirt! He had his own way of identifying it, and letting
out a yell that alerted the culprit, he took chase and caught him and went
home with his shirt! I like to tell that story. It is the only story that we
knew of that my grandfather came out the hero. After all as his progeny, we
owe him something!
The adjective "greedy" is
actually somewhat misleading. It wasn't the largest portions which
Grandpa considered his just due but the choice ones, such as the white
meat of chicken, should this be his favorite. In Brazil, where he lived with
his family for 15 years, garden yields provided watermelon the year round, and
they were not cut across, but lengthwise. Then the middle (the heart) was
removed in long strips for Grandpa. The rest of the family got the seedy side
parts. Grandma never thought of questioning his right to this anymore than
she had any qualms about bringing his Sunday clothes to the kitchen for him.
Of the six children born to
my grandparents, three were lost in infancy. Such statistics were not
uncommon in those days. The third child, a 3-year-old girl named Mariechen
(the diminutive of Mary), was stricken with a serious undiagnosed illness.
When the doctor was called (he came from a considerable distance), the child
was already dying. Grandpa was frantic. He refused to accept the doctor's
verdict. Picking the child up, he held her close, screaming, "Nein, nein,
mein Kind! Du musst nicht sterben!" (No, no, my child, you must not
die! I will not let you die!). Grandma did her best to quiet him, worrying
that the child might hear and understand.
The doctor was appalled and
left Grandma to deal with this madman. Grandma still wept copiously over this
scene years later. She was always ahead of her time and in that instance had
been concerned about the possible state of the child's consciousness. She
told us that forgiving Grandpa for this was the hardest thing she had ever
done, but what could she do? She was already carrying their next child.
When Grandma first informed
her mother that she planned to marry Jacob Kehl, Great-Grandma wept for a
week, trying to dissuade her. His reputation as a human devil was already
established and preceded him wherever he went. Somehow, however, he never ran
afoul of the law. Grandma said he was too smart for that! Physical abuse of
his wife was as far as he went; there was no law against wife beating. He
never beat up a neighbor or a townsman. Self-preservation was his first
priority at all times!
There were times when
Grandpa could be quite charming. That is, he could be as charming as he
needed to be to get what he wanted. Even as children, we learned to recognize
his self-serving signs and were watchful of them…a sad state of affairs. When
his second kleines Mariechen, my mother, was one year old, he decided
to move his family to Brazil. The family believes today that it was
homesteading that drew him there, opportunist that he was. I can only hope
that Grandma went willingly on such a long sea voyage with a one-year-old.
However, it was Grandpa who made all the decisions. He had great powers of
persuasion, and Grandma was known to have what we now call a selective memory,
the two qualities that probably kept them together.
Grandpa seemed to be, by
nature, an entrepreneur; or possibly he needed a serious challenge to get his
mind off petty concerns and behave like a decent human being. At any rate, it
did not take him long to set himself up in the meat business in Sao Paulo.
The climate was hot, there was no refrigeration, and foxy Grandpa was soon
smoking his much-celebrated bratwurst of Butchering Days fame. It brought him
a thriving business in no time. *
Jakob Kehl and his wife, Elisabeth
“Ersze” Messner Kehl,
with their children, Anna Maria“Mary”
and Jacob “Jake” in Brazil Photo ca. 1900
He had a beautiful house
built for his family and hired maids, young girls from the interior, who
worked for low wages. Soon the old symptoms of self-gratification
reappeared. When Grandma found him in bed with a pretty young maid, it was
the last straw. "In our own house!” she wailed. She left him with all three
of their children for another village where a wealthy physician hired her as
cook and housekeeper, housing all three of her children in the contract.
There is a charming story
about her tenure there that shows a strong side of Grandma's character that
she could use to her advantage, did she so choose. She seriously injured her
right index finger with a kitchen knife. The physician treated the wound
without success, and he eventually told Grandma that the finger would have to
be amputated. She refused and said that she would take care of it herself!
Doctors did considerable
traveling to other villages, sometimes for extended periods of time. When he
left, the finger still not healed, Grandma applied an old family poultice of
chewed-up rye bread (human saliva was considered to promote healing). "The
rye bread must be stale and moldy, the moldier, the better" (shades of
penicillin?). By the time her employer returned, the finger was completely
healed. "How…what did you do, Frau Kehl?" he asked, his eyes wide in
disbelief. "That," said Grandma, "is something the good doctor need not know
(das brauch der Herr Doctor gar nicht zu wissen)."
She stayed on as his
housekeeper for two years. Perhaps that is what she needed to do to prove to
herself that she could get along without her husband. At any rate, after two
years of Grandpa's pleading, Grandma relented and returned, not only to him,
but also to Hrastovac, with my mother and her brother, Uncle Jake. My
mother's oldest sister, Elizabeth, remained in Brazil where she ultimately
married and raised a family. Her grandson, Arturo Hirsch, and his wife came
to visit us in 1990.
My mother was a beauty at
16, considered just ripe for marriage in those times. The young swains of the
village were soon competing for her favors, the front-runners being Henry Lotz
and John Ochs. Henry, a happy-go-lucky type, lost out to John Ochs, who was
handsome, serious, and gentle.
The January wedding was a
cut above the usual Hrastovac weddings. The bride wore a one-piece Brazilian
dress of fine turquoise serge and silk flowers (in lieu of crepe paper) in her
hair. Grandpa made sure the wine was the finest, and Grandma saw to it that
the chicken soup, with noodles cut fine as thread, was on the menu.
*A picture of Grandma and
Grandpa (Jacob and Elizabeth Kehl) is hanging in the cottage in Rhinelander.
Grandma is sitting, and standing are Grandpa, my mother, and my Uncle Jake
(Jacob), who lived in Ohio. Grandpa Kehl had three occupations. He was a
farmer; he was in the meatpacking business (bratwurst) and the wool-dying
business. As Mother indicated, Jakob and family dressed differently than the
people in Hrastovac, probably like they did in Brazil. My mother was born in
Hrastovac and traveled to Brazil when she was a baby. She had an older
sister, Elizabeth, who married a Hirsh who stayed in Brazil after the family
moved back to Hrastovac. My mother visited her sister in 1968 that she had
not seen in 60 years. Her sister’s descendants’ surname is Hirsch. Arturo
Hirsch, my cousin, came to the United States in 1991, and the family had a
party to welcome him and his wife, Lola. We have since lost track of where he
is living in Brazil today.
GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES WITH BLUE SATIN SASHES
It was in the summer of 1985
that my brother, Johnny, died in his California home at the age of 67. Helen,
Phil, and I flew there to attend the funeral. Mary, as usual, wanted "to
remember him as he was". After the funeral, I asked my sister-in-law, "Judy,
do you know what ever happened to our family passport?"
Judy's eyes widened. "Why,
Ma gave that to Johnny after Pa died," she told me. "She thought that was the
place for it. He was such a cute little fellow," she added.
I was greatly moved seeing
that passport again. I couldn't believe what a handsome man my father had
been, and little Johnny had those round rosy cheeks (whatever happened to
children's rosy cheeks?). Ma wasn't as attractive as I remembered her. The
sun slanted into her eyes, and her lovely brown hair was pulled back into a
I had to have one of those
pictures! I arranged with Judy to take the passport back with me to have a
negative made and subsequent copies of the photo made for all of my family. I
did this and sent one to each of Judy's three beautiful daughters as well.
That was at least 10 years ago, before I'd ever thought of writing the family
history. It occurs to me that the pictures will now take on extra meaning.
I'm sorry about the above
detour, my dears, but I really believe that the idea of the family history was
conceived at that time. Writing it is truly an arduous task, but I do believe
it will contain much information that is worth preserving.
The lyricist who wrote the
songs for the movie The Sound of Music did his research well. Set in
the post WWI era, the dream of little girls was indeed white dresses with blue
satin sashes. I can't imagine how my parents could have afforded to buy two
of them for Mary and me, with the expense of the journey to America just
ahead. The only time I clearly remember us wearing them was that summer day
when the whole family walked up and down the road of Hrastovac for our
good-bye visit to our relatives and friends---and I also remember the
photographer well. Nobody in the village owned a camera in 1921.
We left our birthplace a
very few days later and spent the first night at the home of my father's
second cousin in Vienna. The letter containing the invitation, which my
father read aloud, also contained the exciting information that the only
daughter of the family had broken her engagement to a fine Viennese gentleman
and was now engaged to marry a Turk! These relatives were very fine people,
and we were warned to be on our best behavior. This warning, added to our
first sight of the apartment building where an elevator took us to the fifth
floor, was enough to render us mute for the duration of the visit.
When Papa's cousin told us
we were to meet the Turk after dinner, we were tense with anticipation.
Somehow I expected trouble. It was a great relief (tinged with faint
disappointment) to find that he was a most courteous and handsome gentleman.
My fears had been unfounded; fine people did not make trouble.
The journey from Vienna to
Antwerp, our port of departure, was beautiful beyond description, even to my
seven-year-old eyes. Mary and I took turns at the window seat as the train
wound its way through the Alps. We chose a spectacular snow-capped peak in
the distance and vowed not to take our eyes off of it until we reached it.
Sooner or later, a curve in the tracks or a long, dark tunnel would make it
necessary for us to choose a new target for our game.
After arriving in Antwerp, I
learned that we would have a three-day wait for our ship, the "Samland". Our
parents had a special fund for this trip; it was by far the sweetest time in
all of our family life. We had all our meals in the hotel dining room. Most
of the diners were friendly and spoke enough German to voice the familiar
refrain of what "gute Kinder" we were. This no doubt pleased our
parents even more than their Kinder.
It was Papa who continued to
remind us children to notice things we must remember nicht vergessen
(not to forget). The exceptional beauty spots, beginning with the mountains,
and then the fields and fields of tulips, each a different color, all dazzled
the eyes. The hotel had a swimming beach, and Papa played with us kids in the
ocean every afternoon, a forerunner of our fondness for the beach on Lake
Michigan in Milwaukee.
There was a carnival, or
more likely, a fairground in Antwerp with a roller coaster that had a
fearful-looking ride over some kind of canyon. Papa offered a ticket for
anyone of us brave enough to take that ride (exempting himself). Mama was the
only taker. We watched her ups and downs with bated breath, and when her hat
blew off, she just laughed. Never could I have imagined Mama laughing over a
loss of any kind!
I remember very clearly the
day we boarded the ship. The kids all sat cross-legged on one side of the
deck, waiting for we knew not what. Suddenly the ship gave a mighty heave,
and we all slid squealing to the other side. My mother was weeping when we
came back. "Why are you crying, Mama?" (Warum weinst du, Mama?) we
wondered. She only shook her head and cried harder.
Papa and I were the only
ones to avoid seasickness. Mama stayed below deck for three whole days, and I
can still see her squinting in the bright sunlight as Papa carried her to a
deck chair and tucked her into a blanket, where she drew deep, deep breaths of
the fresh ocean air.
Mary and I were given
separate sleeping quarters from Hansi and our parents. We shared a room
containing two bunk beds with a Polish woman and her son, who was about our
age. A storm came that lasted three days and three nights, and we became so
engrossed in watching and listening to them talk in a strange language as they
prayed with their rosaries, we quite forgot to be afraid. I remember no fear
whatever…or is that the selective memory I've always been accused of
inheriting from Grandma?
The voyage across the ocean
lasted two weeks. We docked at the port of Philadelphia and spent the next
couple of days waiting in line for something or other. The first and the best
thing was the bath, our first since leaving home---Mama, Mary, and me in
different quarters from Papa's and Hansi's. I remember that the food was
atrocious; as the ship's had been---no snacks between meals--we ate anything
that was set before us.
It took us three days to go
by train from Philadelphia to Milwaukee. We changed trains frequently, day
and night. I can still see us sitting on benches as Papa paced up and down,
up and down, with Hansi fast asleep in his arms. That long ago, Papa was
already afflicted with "restless legs", which I was doomed to inherit.
All in all, for me the
memory of the journey will always be one of a completely untarnished and
wonderful family time. Everyone was nice to everyone else twenty-four hours a
day…no quarrels, no scolding, just all of us happy to be together.